Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
You know what I think about the kingdom of heaven? I think it’s incredibly frustrating. And slow. And sometimes discouraging.
But before I can explain why to you, we need to be clear about the definition of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus talks about it. First, it is not a place out in the stars somewhere that your soul goes after you die. At least that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. As Jesus explains it, the kingdom of heaven is something that is present here and now. It’s something that he brings into the world. It is any time and any place God’s will of love, compassion, and grace are being done. It isn’t so much a place as a way of living in the world. It is less about getting ahead in the world and more about giving yourself away for the world. It’s loving with Jesus’ love, forgiving with Jesus’ forgiveness, and being compassionate with Jesus’ compassion. That is the kingdom of God Jesus is talking about.
And it can be frustrating to me. Jesus tries over and over to get people to understand it, and has a hard time succeeding. Here in this text, he tells five quick parables to help us get this concept. I don’t find it frustrating because of what I don’t get about it. I find it frustrating because of the parts I do.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. A weed that was unwanted by everyone in that day. It would take over a field and aggressively take all the water so no crops to grow. And the birds that come and make their nests in the full-grown mustard shrub? They aren’t cute little song birds. They come and peck at all the good seeds that the mustard bush has left.
The kingdom of heaven is like that? Unwanted? Invasive? It just comes in and takes over?
Yes, Jesus says. Like that.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like leaven in bread dough. This is not a nice little package of yeast that makes freshly baked bread fluffy and tall. No, leaven was an impurity, coming from rotten, moldy, old bread. Why would a woman contaminate her bread like that? Unleavened bread was pure and good. Leavened bread was gross.
The kingdom of heaven is like that? Disgusting? Contaminated? Ruining perfectly good bread?
Yes, Jesus says. Like that.
Why do I find that frustrating? Because I tend to agree. I want the kingdom of heaven, i.e., compassion and grace and forgiveness and love to be revealed. But I want it to be revealed on my terms. I don’t want to be compassionate indiscriminately. I don’t want it coming in where I think it has no business being present. I want to live with Jesus’ compassion when I want to, not invading into unwanted places when God wants it done.
I want to dispense compassion to the people I want to dispense it to. Those for whom it will possibly make a difference. Those who will respond to compassion and be open to my compassion changing their lives. Because then I have a better chance of being recognized for my amazing kindness. If it invades where I don’t really want it, happening whenever God wants, my acts of compassion might not be received the way I want. They may think I expect a response from them. They may think that I think they now owe me something. They may be right.
I’ve been known to think, “Wow. After all I did for you, that’s how you repay me? After all my wonderful compassion, you treat me like that?” I performed your wedding and you won’t join my church? I gave you a night’s lodging at a motel, and you tell all your homeless friends I’ll do the same for them?
You see, if I can control when I show compassion, if I control where I reveal the kingdom of God, I can also control how it’s received. I’m not so likely to waste perfectly good compassion on someone who treats my compassion like an invasive contaminate.
So, yes, it’s frustrating that I don’t control the kingdom of God. That with me or without me, compassion and love and grace keep showing up in the world. Sometimes where they have no business showing up.
Part of me longs for the day that this kingdom of compassion takes over everything and everyone like Jesus’ last parable of a net scooping up fish everywhere. But another part of me recognizes that the fullness of that is a long way off, and I have a long way to go before I’m doing my full part in it.
So maybe it’s OK that this kingdom of compassion and grace and forgiveness invades like a weed. Because perhaps it will invade me too. Whether I accept it well or not. Whether I respond well to it or not. And I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.